Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 30, 2012

Poulter And Team Europe Storm To Victory

Given that only two German golfers have ever played for Europe in the Ryder Cup, perhaps the golfing gods couldn’t bring themselves to inflict ultimate misery on both of them. Twenty-one years ago, Bernhard Langer stood over a six-foot putt on the 18th green at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island. Had the putt gone in, Langer would have won his singles match over Hale Irwin, and Team Europe would have retained the Ryder Cup in a 14-14 tie. But the downhill slider broke away from the hole at the last moment, and the U.S. won the 1991 Ryder Cup.

Late Sunday afternoon at Medinah Country Club in suburban Chicago, Martin Kaymer stood over his own six footer with this year’s Ryder Cup on the line. With a confident stroke the 27-year old buried the ball in the heart of the cup, defeating Steve Stricker 1-up and clinching the 2012 Ryder Cup for Team Europe. Kaymer’s winning putt was the culmination of an unbelievable finish to the biennial matches in which Europe, led by the golfer most passionate about the Cup on either team, mounted the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history.

There was a point early in Friday morning’s opening foursomes matches at which Europe held the lead in all four contests. For much of the rest of the weekend, that looked like it was going to be the visitors’ high point of the 39th renewal of these matches. The U.S. rallied to earn a split Friday morning, led by what would prove to be the powerhouse team of Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, who dusted Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia 4&3. Mickelson and Bradley emerged victorious again in Friday afternoon’s fourballs, this time over world #1 Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell. The American pair who often play practice rounds together before weekly PGA Tour tournaments were one of three American teams to post wins on Friday afternoon, as the host team rolled out to a 5-3 lead after day one.

Team USA appeared to seize control of the matches on Saturday morning, when they duplicated their 3-1 score of Friday afternoon. Only the English duo of Ian Poulter and Justin Rose were able to post a victory for Team Europe, 1-up over Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson. When the U.S. won the first two games on Saturday afternoon the American lead had ballooned to 10-4 and what had been widely predicted to be a closely contested Ryder Cup was turning into a rout.

But as can happen in any sport, just when the eventual outcome seems certain we are reminded that there is a reason why they actually play the games. First Donald and Garcia, playing in the third afternoon fourball game against Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker, raced out to a 4-up lead at the turn. The Americans fought back to close to within one through 16 holes, and when Woods struck his tee shot on the 178-yard par -3 17th to within five feet of the hole, it looked like the match might be all square. But the unflappable Donald came through under pressure, putting his own tee shot inside of Tiger’s. The matching birdies preserved the lead and the European pair went on to win the first point of the afternoon for their team.

Then in the final team match before Sunday’s twelve singles, McIlroy and Poulter found themselves 2-down to Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson through 12 holes. McIlroy rolled in a birdie at 13 to cut the lead to one; and then, as he later said, stepped aside and watched “the Poults show.” While casual fans may know him more for his loud clothing than his ball striking, Poulter has fifteen professional wins and loves match play. He won both the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in 2010 and the European Tour’s Volvo World Match Play Championship last year. Although like most members of the European team he plays full-time on the PGA Tour and makes his principal home in Florida, no one is more passionate about the Ryder Cup. In the days leading up to the event he repeatedly shared his building excitement with his more than 1.3 million Twitter followers. All the 36-year old Poulter did on Saturday afternoon was put Europe’s slim chances on his back with the beginnings of an improbable comeback. After McIlroy’s birdie Poulter sank birdie putts of his own on each of the last five holes, as the European duo rallied for a 1-up victory.

No team had even won after trailing 10-4; yet even with the two late wins on Saturday, Team Europe entered Sunday’s singles matches still trailing 10-6. The four point gap matched that which the U.S. team overcame on the final day in 1999 at The Country Club. But there the U.S. had the advantage of playing on home soil, with the crowd energizing them throughout that final day. With Team Europe having to duplicate the feat while playing as visitors, an eventual U.S. victory still seemed like a safe bet.

At least it did until European captain Jose Maria Olazabal elected to send his best-performing players all out in the early matches, in the hopes of scoring a string of victories and cutting into the big lead. It was a strategy that worked perfectly. Playing in the first match, Donald defeated Watson 2&1 for the first point of the day. Forty-nine minutes later Scotland’s Paul Lawrie, playing in the middle of the day’s matches, finished off a 5&3 thrashing of Brandt Snedeker to pull Europe within two points. Within less than fifteen minutes of Lawrie’s win, McIlroy and Poulter each won their games at the front of the field, and the score was deadlocked at 10-10. Poulter’s 2-up win over Webb Simpson gave him a perfect 4-0-0 record for this year’s Ryder Cup. Matching his dramatic finish from Saturday, Poulter won both 17 and 18 to turn an all square match into a full point for his team.

Dustin Johnson finally won Team USA’s first point, beating Belgium’s Nicholas Colsaerts 3&2, but even as he did so the 2012 Ryder Cup was turning in a match being played ahead of him. Justin Rose, the last of the three Englishmen Olazabal had sent out early along with McIlroy to try to build momentum, was 1-down to Mickelson and faced a lengthy birdie putt on the 17th green. Rose had already saved a half on the 16th by knocking in a 12-foot par putt. Now his 35-footer from the back of the green raced up to the hole and dove in, squaring the match. While many of the golfers had responded to such moments throughout the week with fist pumps and roars, Rose simply walked across the green with a look that said to the world, “I knew I was going to make it, why are you so surprised?” A few minutes later he finished off Mickelson with a 12-foot birdie at the last, and even Phil was applauding Rose’s heroics.

With wins in the first five matches to tee off, the question was whether Team Europe’s late starters could complete the miracle comeback. Lee Westwood, who had not played well for most of the weekend, found enough of his game to defeat Matt Kuchar, and the visitor’s cause was helped when Jim Furyk missed a short par putt on the 18th to hand a win to Garcia. Then Stricker missed a par save on the 17th to give Kaymer a 1-up lead, and set the stage for a moment reminiscent of one more than two decades old. This time, there would be no denying the German golfer staring at a six-foot putt for Ryder Cup glory.

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